Kings of comedy: the art of interactive humour

Chris Schilling

Few games are designed to make you laugh. And among those that do, laughter is often a happy accident, the inadvertent by-product of a combination of systems that provoke moments of unintentional comedy.

“People laugh at videogames constantly,” says former Irrational Games alumnus Jordan Thomas, who recently worked as creative consultant on South Park: The Stick of Truth. “But largely it's because they're laughing at the clumsy and often absurd intersection between the designer's intent and their own.” Thomas insists there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the distinction is clear: we're laughing at games, not with them.

For comedy writer and director Graham Linehan, it's pretty low on his list of priorities when playing a game. “For me it's like comedy in porn,” he says. “It's kind of beside the point.” Valve writer Erik Wolpaw, who co-scripted Portal and its sequel, admits that he once likened the idea of comedy in games to “the guy who talks between dancers at a strip club. Nobody cares what that guy says and anybody who does is probably kinda maladjusted.”

Linehan suggests that in most cases the problem is that the writing simply isn't good enough. The desire to ensure the audience is in on the joke is perhaps why GTA's satire has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball (by design, arguably), and why parody rarely works—Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's attempts to mock bad tutorials by forcing the player to sit through one has all the wit of Scary Movie. “I love that argument trotted out about a bad game: oh, it's a satire,” Linehan laughs. “When Alan Wake came out and the dialogue was just grim, [people said] 'ah, but he's supposed to be a bad writer.' No. I really don't think they're good enough to do an impersonation of a bad writer.”

And yet it's easy to sympathise with writers attempting interactive comedy. There are intractable problems with a medium in which authors cede control to players: if the secret of comedy is in the timing, how you do ensure the player delivers the punchline at the right time? Nor does the natural repetition of core game mechanics lend itself to humour. “The point of surprise is the punchline in a joke,” says Luis Hernandez, one half of indie duo Necrophone Games, developers of Jazzpunk. “And by virtue of having a core mechanic, you're expecting a certain outcome. I think that's less conducive to surprising people and as a result [less conducive to] comedy.”

Perhaps that helps to explain why there are so few blockbuster comedy games around. Hernandez cites the desire for efficiency among large developers working on big-budget productions as an unavoidable issue. “Comedy by its very nature is an inefficient thing. It's not a survival skill, it's sort of a peacock feather.” The loss of individualism in a large team, he says, means that it's harder to reach consensus, “so you end up with a designed-by-committee feel.”

Necrophone's Jess Brouse agrees that larger developers aren't best positioned to explore comedy, simply because they're less free to experiment during production. “A lot of triple-A developers don't just play around and see what happens—or rarely get to do that. Whereas we do it all the time, we do a lot of experiments and stuff that we don't end up using. I mean, we made another 40 to 50 percent content for Jazzpunk that ended up on the cutting room floor. But we got it to the level of prototype rather than just designing it on paper.” The secret of Jazzpunk's success, he suggests, is down to the two-man team's ability to test and play their ideas, without having to run them past a superior.

Which isn't to say it can't be done, as the two Portal games have proven—though as a studio Valve can hardly be said to be typical of large development teams. Erik Wolpaw suggests that financial concerns are part of the reason why so few big publishers will take risks on comedy. “I think in film and TV, comedies are generally cheaper to produce than big dramatic spectacle movies. In triple-A games, where you have to make everything from scratch, they cost about the same, so you don't mitigate the risk with a cheaper budget. Plus, failed comedy tends to fail a lot harder than failed drama. Bad comedy is pretty much unbearable to sit through, whereas bad drama can at least crater into unintentional comedy.”

Ignoring the financial barrier, he's unsure why people don't attempt to write more comedy games. “It's probably because they think it's hard. That's why I don't write more drama or horror or romance or whatever—I'm pretty sure I'm not good at it and it seems like it'd be a ton of work to become good at it. So, fear and laziness mostly.”

And yet for all the issues inherent in creating good videogame comedy, it does feel that we're seeing the first real resurgence of humour in the medium, arguably since the classic point-and-click era, where LucasArts games in particular offered a rich seam of wit. The two Portal games, Hernandez and Brouse's Jazzpunk and South Park: The Stick of Truth have all made players laugh, and while the likes of Goat Simulator and Octodad stretched their one joke a little too far, for all their flaws they're indicative of a culture that's daring to explore an untapped area of the interactive medium. The recent rise to prominence of indie games is undoubtedly an influence, as smaller developers such as Necrophone have easy access to tools like Unity and are empowered to build games without needing to break the bank—the “democratisation of technology,” as Hernandez calls it.

In that environment, South Park: The Stick of Truth is something of an anomaly—while its budget might not compare with a GTA or a BioShock, it's a reasonably high-cost comedy from a large publisher. Its risk as a business venture is, of course, mitigated by the fact that it's based on an established licence, but that in itself has proven to be as often a hindrance as a help in the past. Yet with the involvement of Trey Parker and Matt Stone at every stage in the process, it plays out like an extended episode of the show. In that sense, it could be argued that it's funny despite being a game, and yet, as Jordan Thomas explains, part of the reason it works so well is that the player becomes a participant in the joke; they're not merely a passive observer of the game's comedy.

The Stick of Truth “was an excellent crash course in the problems of timing as exposed to the player,” he says. “A lot of the best jokes in South Park were hard-won because they were our attempt to anticipate what the player might do and respond only if they chose to take that action, and that's the stuff I'm the proudest of because that's the stuff that's hardest to do well. You can make someone laugh in a cutscene trivially—that has been around for thousands of years. But to get them to be in on the joke, and not just that, but be the person who has the best line, so to speak, there's very little precedent for it. There was experimentation in adventure games, and then a long drought, and finally we're coming back here and there.”

The direct involvement of the player in the comedy is an idea that still feels relatively untapped, but it's one that Necrophone Games' terrific Jazzpunk manages to exploit. Many of its jokes rely on the element of surprise, often subverting the player's expectations, or simply offering an unexpected result to a simple interaction. Attempting to speak to a man on a bridge, for example, causes him to jump off, emitting a Wilhelm scream as he falls. Reaching out to manipulate the hands on a clock reveals your arm to be a wooden prop. What makes it so consistently funny is that you're never sure what the results of your interactions will be, and that only encourages you to explore and discover the surprises for yourself.

“It was very important to have that possibility space,” Luis Hernandez says. “The open world aspect ties into that—the fact that players are missing things and a joke doesn't really work if you see it coming. A lot of games are structured around a core mechanic, and even in comedy I feel that's the wrong approach.”

“The kind of comedy we're doing is more like punchlines,” adds Jess Brouse, likening the game's humour to a jack-in-the-box. “It's that kind of sharp 'I got ya' surprise that pops out at the end.”

Every bit as surprising is the revelation that Jazzpunk didn't begin life as a comedy, and only developed into one as Hernandez and Brouse began to add Easter eggs into their spy fiction while they were building it to amuse themselves. Slowly, they began to consider how comedy could be used as a central game mechanic, and Hernandez began studying other games in order to better understand how to make their own work better. “Looking at how other games at the time were being built, like shooters and puzzle games, I realised that a lot of games are structured around some kind of resistive element,” he explains. “Most games are built with a start and end state, and they throw in a bunch of stuff along the way so you can't just walk to the end of the game. In most games that's guys that shoot at you or something that shoots at you. And in other games it will be puzzles that impede you, and you have to walk around and find coloured blocks or keys and fit them into doors.”

Hernandez's boredom and general dissatisfaction with these two base types of resistance helped to shape Jazzpunk's development. “I realised that some of this comedy stuff we were gradually adding to the game could actually function as a kind of resistive element. Even if it was something passive that players could walk past, you'd still have curious players that would seek out this material. So while our game has some simple puzzle elements, they're mostly very straightforward. And rather than shooting or outright puzzle solving, comedy became the resistive element.”

If the secret of Jazzpunk's success is that element of surprise, its comedy is still very much scripted, and yet most players would probably admit that the biggest laughs they've experienced in a game have emerged from entirely unplanned moments of comedy. In some cases—like the aforementioned Octodad or even its spiritual precursor, Bennett Foddy's hilarious QWOP—the games are purposely designed to result in moments of physical slapstick, but is giving players the tools to create their own comedy moments a valid approach to making funny games? “Short answer—yes,” says Erik Wolpaw, before wryly adding “long answer—Chet [Faliszek, Wolpaw's co-writer on the Portal games] and I are out of work if comedy writing gets replaced by tools programming. So while I admit it's entirely possible and truly effective, I'm against it.”

Indeed, often the moments that provoke the most laughter come from the most unexpected sources, sandbox games often proving a rich source of humour. “Battlefield does make me laugh a lot,” admits Graham Linehan. “The things that can happen in Battlefield are obviously unscripted but maybe that's why it's funny. Maybe that feeds into [the idea of] emergent gameplay lending itself to comic timing—like when you wander into a building and throw a few grenades and the building suddenly collapses onto you. It's unexpected. It fulfils a lot of the rules of comedy, you know, it's a mixture of the surprising and the inevitable.”

The common link, it seems, between systemic comedy and scripted comedy is that they're both at their best when subverting expectations. Linehan agrees that a degree of spontaneity is as welcome as a dose of wit. “Maybe what all these games have in common is that they're playing the player—they're messing with your expectations more. In that respect, I always think there's been a link between horror and comedy. Like in Silent Hill, where you have that toilet door that's closed, and you knock at it three times and there's a pause and then knock knock knock from the other side. It's terrifying, but it's very funny. The best comedy is really where you're being played to some extent.”

Could the likes of Portal, Jazzpunk and The Stick of Truth bring about a comedy revival, or are we a little way off from audiences actively seeking out comedy games? “I like a bit of intelligence, I like a reference that seems neat and clever and takes me by surprise,” says Linehan. “I value wit over comedy [in games], I guess. Valve are really good at it, and I always think something like Left 4 Dead is very witty in how it's constructed. But when I need a good laugh, will I watch The Producers or play a videogame?”

Hernandez believes that more people might begin to develop a taste for comedy if more games attempt to make players laugh. “I haven't played it yet, but The Stanley Parable, Goat Simulator, games like that – if they come out and start building up a Blockbuster shelf of comedy that people can see every time they go to the Steam Store then it could happen.

“I think people go into games to be amused,” he continues. “I don't think receiving comedy as a reward is really any better or worse than receiving points for stepping on people or killing-spree notifications for shooting people in the face. Essentially, people play games a lot of the time to get an endorphin release in their brain, so whether that's a joke or solving a puzzle [I] don't think there's that much of a disparity between the two.”

Brouse suggests that if interactive comedy is to take off, it will take time to manifest, while Hernandez believes that it's too soon to judge whether or not their game has influenced other developers to follow their lead. “We won't know if they took it to heart yet,” he says. “I keep imagining a student in, say Japan, and that Jazzpunk is close to what they want to make. I mean, I've met people who say that Jazzpunk is something close to what they're looking for in games. There's definitely a huge audience looking for things other than shooting and puzzles, and for them Jazzpunk scratched an itch that perhaps they didn't know they had.”

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